Scientists put out the call for 10,000 canines to join the Dog Aging Project

Alan Boyle
The organizers of the Dog Aging Project plan to use big-data tools to study canine health – and apply their findings to human health issues as well. (Dog Aging Project / UW / Texas A&M Photo)

Scientists are looking for 10,000 good dogs to take part in a 10-year effort aimed at tracking their health and identifying factors that can lengthen their lifespan.

The pets that are selected for the Dog Aging Project could come in for some scientific pampering, including genome sequencing and health assessments.

But that doesn’t mean the project’s organizers at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University and other research institutions are totally going to the dogs. The larger purpose of the campaign — and the reason it’s getting $15 million in direct funding from the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health — is to pick up new clues about the aging process in humans.

Researchers can use dogs as a model for human health studies, just as they use lab mice, said project co-director Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the UW School of Medicine. And for this project’s purposes, pets bring an extra advantage.

“Unlike laboratory animals, they also share our environment,” he told GeekWire. “So we absolutely believe that, in that respect, pet dogs are going to be superior to laboratory models for understanding the aging process in humans, because we’re able to capture that environmental diversity.”

Kaeberlein and his colleagues have been ramping up the project for several years, but now they’re ready for prime time: The official launch comes today in Austin, Texas, at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

Dog owners can nominate their canines as candidates for study on DogAgingProject.org. The nomination process entails setting up a secure user portal and providing health and lifestyle information about their dogs. Participants will also be asked to share their pets’ veterinary medical records.

The organizers hope well more than 10,000 pet owners will apply. There’s no restriction on the age of the pet, or their breed. It doesn’t matter if they’re healthy or suffering from chronic illness, if they’re male or female, if they’re neutered or not.

“All owners who complete the nomination process will become Dog Aging Project citizen scientists, and their members will become members of the Dog Aging Project ‘pack,’ ” another project co-director, Daniel Promislow of the UW School of Medicine, said in a news release. “Their information will allow us to begin carrying out important research on aging in dogs.”

Ten thousand dogs will be selected to reflect a representative range of doggie demographics. Each of those dogs will go through low-pass whole genome sequencing and periodic assessments of physical function. Eventually, the researchers hope to tease out correlations between genetic factors and health conditions on a grand scale.

About 500 middle-aged, mid- to large-sized dogs will be chosen for a clinical trial that’s aimed at assessing the effects of a drug known as rapamycin on cognition, heart function and lifespan. Rapamycin’s potential as an anti-aging drug, for pets as well as people, is what led Kaeberlein and Promislow to come up with the Dog Aging Project in the first place.

But that’s just one aspect of the project. The organizers hope their project will become the canine equivalent of large-cohort human research projects like the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging or the Framingham Heart Study.

Over the long run, the project’s finding could provide cold, hard data to support (or debunk) longstanding ideas about what’s good for dogs, ranging from environmental conditions to exercise to diet.

“Diet in particular is a really important one … because there are very strong opinions out there on different diets for dogs, and very little data to actually support those opinions,” Kaeberlein said. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to contribute to that fairly quickly. Is it really the case that a raw-food diet is good, bad or indifferent for most dogs, or certain breeds of dogs? The data just isn’t out there …. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to bring some rigorous science to address questions like that.”

The goal isn’t just to have dogs live longer, but to find ways to keep dogs as well as their humans healthier longer.

“As a veterinarian, it is important to me that our work benefits dogs directly,” said project co-director Kate Creevy, an associate professor of veterinary internal medicine at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “But our work with dogs has the added value of shedding light on the human aging experience as well.”

The funding from the National Institutes of Health will cover the first five years of the project, and the organizers are hopeful that the effort will be supported and perhaps even expanded for a full 10-year run.

Kaeberlein’s interest in canine health and longevity isn’t purely clinical. His family has three dogs: an 8-year-old German shepherd, a 14-year-old Keeshond and a mixed-breed rescue dog that Kaeberlein figures is 13 to 15 years old — which qualifies as senior-citizen status in dog years.

“I love my dogs, and I certainly recognize that if we’re able to extend the healthy period of life for our pets, that has intrinsic value,” he said. “Both for the dogs … and for the owners.”

More than 40 researchers are working on the Dog Aging Project. In addition to UW and Texas A&M, participating institutions include Purdue University, Princeton University, Arizona State University, Cornell University, University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Veterinary schools at the University of Georgia, North Carolina State College, Iowa State University, Colorado State University, Oregon State University and Washington State University are also involved. The project is supported by NIA/NIH grant 1U19AG057337 and private donations.

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